Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is Biblical Inerrancy Irrelevant?

Biblical inerrancy may be defined as follows: “when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”[1]

One important element of this definition is that inerrancy only applies to the original autographs. But since we no longer have the original autographs in our possession, the question that begs to be asked is, “Of what use or importance is biblical inerrancy then? Is biblical inerrancy even relevant?” Some liberal theologians conclude that inerrancy is altogether irrelevant. This, in turn, has negatively affected how many Christians view Scripture and the confidence they place in it.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

But my friends this shouldn’t be. Biblical inerrancy is relevant and Scripture commands your confidence. To help explain why this is so, let us consider the distinction commonly made by metaphysicians between word tokens and word types.[2] Consider the following words:


Now reflect on this question: “How many words are there?” The question is ambiguous because there is a sense in which it looks like there are two words (RED and BLUE), and another sense in which it looks like there are three words (RED, BLUE, and RED).  The question receives clarification when we distinguish between word tokens and word types and specify which we are interested in.

If we are asking how many word tokens there are, then we have three: two tokens of the word RED and one token of the word BLUE. A token is an individual, particular kind of thing. It is a specific thing that can only exist in one place at one time. If, on the other hand, we are asking how many word types there are, then we have two: the word type RED and the word type BLUE. A type in this case is a universal. It is repeatable and can be in more than one place at one time. It is the same word.

Back to Biblical Inerrancy

What does this have to do with biblical inerrancy? When liberal theologians or skeptics assert that biblical inerrancy is irrelevant because we do not possess the original autographs they are failing to distinguish between the text tokens and the text type. We do have the original text type, even though we may not possess the original text tokens.

To help think about this further, consider that it is the word as a type that conveys meaning, not the word as a token. When we think of the word as a token we are thinking of it as a material object (i.e., black ink scribbled on a parchment). But when we think of the word as a type, we are thinking of it as a bearer of meaning. It becomes a shareable thing which we can both have in our mind or in a book in front of us.

Now, this is where textual criticism comes into play. When it comes to the text of the New Testament, even though we do not have the original text tokens (the original autographs as material scribbling on parchment), we are able to reconstruct with great certainty approximately 99.5% of the original text type. That is, if textual criticism has done its job, we have good reason to believe that we possess the text type which bears the original meaning of the original text tokens.

Notice now that the issue of biblical inerrancy becomes an epistemic one, i.e., “Do we have good grounds to believe we have the original text in this particular passage?” The concern is no longer with the metaphysical claim which says we could never have the original text. We do have the original text type, just not the original text tokens.

Why Didn’t God Preserve the Originals?

Now the question is often raised, “But why would God allow the original manuscript text tokens (i.e., the original autographs) to be lost?”

Answer: We have greater certainty about what the original text type is by applying textual criticism to the available copies than we would if we had the original text tokens. How so? If Christians claimed to have the original autographs (text tokens), all the skeptic or liberal theologian would need to do is raise doubts regarding how we know those “originals” have not been corrupted or tampered with in the last 2,000 years. Apologists would be very hard-pressed to come up with a convincing answer. In other words, if we as Christians were basing our entire case for the reliability of the New Testament on twenty-seven material objects (the original autographs or text tokens), we would need a very high epistemic case that those material objects have maintained their integrity for the last 2,000 years.

Thanks be to God, this is not the history of our received New Testament text. Instead, God in His wisdom took the originals, and using fallible men to reproduce them, diffused the original text type into thousands of documents that provide a broad epistemic basis for our certainty we have the original. Given this scenario, wholesale change of the text became impossible:

By having the text of the New Testament in particular explode across the known world, ending up in the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire in relatively short order, God protected that text from the one thing we, centuries and millennia later, could never detect: wholesale change of doctrine or theology by one particular man or group who had full control over the text at any one point in its history…there was never a time when anyone or any group could gather up all the manuscripts and make extensive changes in the text itself.[3]

The original text type diffused into thousands of documents could then be reconstructed through the process of textual criticism, allowing us to have great confidence in our New Testament and making the doctrine of biblical inerrancy completely relevant.


So, is biblical inerrancy irrelevant because we do not possess the original autographs? Not at all! Metaphysically, the original text can be present as a type today even if the tokens are gone, and it is the type that matters (not the tokens) because it is the type that carries meaning. Do we have the original text type? That is an epistemic question and we are on more epistemically solid ground regarding the text of the New Testament due to textual criticism than we would be having claimed to have the originals. For 99.5% of our New Testament text is pure and not in question, and the .5% that we are less sure about does not affect any major doctrine or essential teaching of the Christian faith.


[1] Paul D. Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 294.
[2] I am deeply indebted to Dr. J.P. Moreland for the following insight and commentary, used with his permission.
[3] James R. White, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations?, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2009), 77-78.


Unknown said...

This is brilliant.

Unknown said...

I completely agree. A lack of originals doesn't mean God has not sustained and kept prefect His word

Vince said...

Great point about why we don't have the originals! Instead of 27 witnesses in the control of a few, we have thousands of 98-99% accurate witnesses spread out to many in short order.

By having many lines of transmission of the copies, we can reconstruct the original better. If just one person copies a document and makes errors, we might never know what the errors were. But if 10 people copy the same original, they aren't all going to make the same mistakes and so by comparing these 10 we have a much better chance of determining what the errors were.